1. The Horrors and Heroics of Crime; or, Mapping the Mark of Criminality
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1 The Horrors and Heroics of Crime; or, Mapping the Mark of Criminality A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary— something whitepeople would find interesting, truly different, worth a few minutes of teeth sucking if not gasps. —Toni Morrison, Beloved And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description. —Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An Ameri­ can Lyric Nigger, I told you. I told you not to touch my hat. —Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, Stagger Lee To understand how the mark of crimi­ nality developed coherent generic characteristics that enabled the pub­ lic vilification and containment of America’s black urban working class and poor at the close of the twentieth century, and functioned as a resource for cultural production for gangsta rap artists, we must go back (“waaaaay back!”).1 Such an investigation brings us to the dawn of Emancipation , the collapse of Reconstruction, and the accompanying horrors of Jim Crow, as well as the social tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. Situating the genre and its po­ liti­ cal context within a wider his­ tori­ cal tapestry of cultural discourses on race, gender, violence, and crime is a precondition for appreciating the rhe­ tori­ cal gestures and po­ liti­ cal stakes associated with the meanings of crime and crimi­ nality in the United States. Doing so illuminates the nimble character of the mark of crimi­ nality. This chapter works toward a theorization of the mark of crimi­nality as a distinct genre of blackness. To clarify how discourses of crimi­ nality acted upon and were enacted by black, mostly masculine bodies in the United States, I offer a genealogy of the mark of crimi­ nality. By tracing the defi- The Horrors and Heroics of Crime / 11 nitional struggles that helped propel the development of law-­ and-­ order politics following the end of slavery, we will be better positioned to situate gangsta rap therein. Gangsta, I shall explain, functioned as a participant in a far grander narrative of crimi­ nality whose meanings, while of­ten relatively stable, have always been subject to refashioning and, at times, rupture.2 To begin, I further develop my understanding of the mark of crimi­ nality as a genre. Genre, Affect, and Criminalized Bodies In pub­ lic culture, crime is widely associated with genres. Hollywood has generated billions of dollars in revenue by producing action films and dramas that chronicle the experiences of law enforcement officers pursuing villainous criminals . Police procedurals are among the most popu­ lar programs on television. Mystery novels and “true crime” books are lucrative industries in their own right. Gangsta rap itself is a subgenre of a broader musical genre, rap, and draws heavily on discourses of crimi­ nality. However, for the purposes of this project, I see genre as encompassing more than a particular type of cultural artifact. One of my central claims is that all of these examples from popu­lar culture draw heavily on generic iterations of blackness that induce attention, affective investment, and ­action. Human symbol use is premised on form. The structures of daily interactions, oratory, vari­ ous kinds of narratives, and modes of popu­ lar culture imbue such practices with coherence and predictability. Kenneth Burke wrote that “form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.”3 As Burke’s larger body of work argued, humans crave order and rely on language to create it. Form, in other words, satisfies an appetite for order.4 When similar forms repetitiously emerge in response to recurrent situations, they become a genre. Crucially, genre is not something that a dutiful critic simply spies lingering under the surfaces of a set of texts. Rather, as Joshua Gunn writes, genres are “patterned forms that reside in the popu­ lar imaginary.”5 Genres cohere around audience desires and expectations, or appetites. Rhetors employ genres to suasive ends, even as genres themselves constrain and...


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